More and more, Americans are having children outside of marriage. In Massachusetts, if the mother is unmarried at the time of birth, the child will not have a legal father and no father's name will be listed on the birth certificate, unless and until paternity is established. A single mother has custody of the child automatically.
What does it mean to have a legal father?
Having a legal father is important to all involved. Obviously, it not only helps develop a father-child relationship, but also significant legal rights kick in. For example, the legal father can seek custody and visitation; the mother can pursue child support; and the child may become eligible for government benefits like Social Security or veterans' benefits; get his or her lawful inheritance rights; be named a beneficiary of the father's retirement or insurance benefits; and obtain the ability to access the father's medical history.
Massachusetts paternity law
Massachusetts law provides three methods for establishing paternity, which can be done for a child at any age:
- Marital presumption: When a child is born to a married mother, her husband is legally presumed the father and named on the birth certificate. Steps can be taken to legally change paternity if the biological father is another man.
- Voluntary acknowledgement: Massachusetts has a paternity acknowledgement form that can be executed by both parents in front of a notary public at one of a number of specified locations and filed with the Registry of Vital Records or the court. Within 60 days, either party can ask the court to cancel the acknowledgement. In cases of "fraud, duress or material mistake of fact," the acknowledgement may be challenged in court for up to one year.
- Court order: Either a mother or father may pursue a court order of paternity in a nonjury trial decided by the judge.
The Massachusetts Department of Revenue, called DOR, is the state agency officially responsible for paternity matters through its Child Support Enforcement Division. DOR provides a variety of paternity services, including arranging for DNA testing that can establish parentage. The court may also order DNA testing if appropriate in a paternity matter, but sometimes a judge may establish paternity without biological proof.
DNA testing can be done either with an inner cheek swab or a blood test. The woman, man and child are all tested and the results show if the man is not the father or if there is "at least a 97 percent probability" that he is, which is accepted as sufficient under Massachusetts law to establish paternity, according to DOR.
In Massachusetts, the court must always keep the best interests of the child first in any family law decision, and state law protects all children equally, whether they are born to married or unmarried parents.
You may be a Massachusetts mother seeking to have paternity of your child established, needing to pursue child support, or facing a request for sharing or giving up custody or allowing visitation. On the other hand, you could be a man wrongly accused of fathering a child and needing to contest the matter in court, pursuing your paternal rights, or responding to a request for child support.
This div does not touch on every detail of Massachusetts paternity law and many situations are unique. It is wise to consult with an experienced Massachusetts family law attorney who has handled paternity and related issues so that you understand your (and the child's) rights and are prepared to take the legal steps necessary to protect them.